The terrifying London garroters of the 1860s

1862 saw a new crime trend hit the streets of London.  The criminals robbed well-to-do people while an accomplice gripped the victim by the throat from behind.  This outbreak of “garroting” horrified the great and the powerful – especially when a member of parliament fell victim. In 1863, an indignant Lord Norton demanded that the garroters should be flogged in prison and the measure was passed with ease.

London garroters in action!
London garroters in action!

In the century before, thieves and robbers could still be tied to a cart and whipped in public. But these garroters were punished in private at Newgate. Well, not entirely in private. Because wealthy folks could gain access to the room with the “whipping press” to watch the brutal action unfold. They just had to get a ticket from the sheriff and demand was high!

A journalist who attended one flogging described it:

We entered a long, low room, ignorant of furniture, except a sort of press, waist-high against one wall and a long deal table by the other. What I liken unto the press was the whipping apparatus with stocks for the prisoner’s feet and holdfasts for his hands. He stepped into this appartus and his feet were forthwith imprisoned. Extending his arms, he placed them in the crescent hollow of a plank before him, another plank was let down and his wrists were pinioned in rings.

Then a jailer picked up a whip with nine cords and knots at the end of each – the infamous cat o’nine tails! The first garroter led in to be punished was, according to the journalist, a “sullen, lumpish thick-skinned brute, with an evil forehead”. I’ll spare you the full description in the book before me (the Victorians loved to describe a good beating!) though it says the jailer “plied the scourge airily, as a fly-fisher would his line”. A nice angling motif!

Supporters of corporal punishment in prisons – which did continue well into the 20th century – claimed it stopped the garrotting epidemic in its tracks. But even at the end of the 19th century, looking back at this very odd crime, the Liberal Home Secretary Lord Asquith (1892-95) said the crime had already subsided before Norton brought his flogging measure to the House. This view was supported by another Home Secretary, Lord Ridley (1895-1900).

Still – the throttlers had given the rich a big scare – and they’d retaliated with the whip!

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Newgate prison: where the condemned were buried

Another blog post in my current series on Newgate prison – demolished over a hundred years ago and replaced by the Old Bailey court building

Newgate prison
Under the flagstones lie the condemned

By the end of the nineteenth century, if you committed a murder north of the Thames – you would face the hangman at Newgate. If you committed it south of the river, then you breathed your last at Wandsworth.

The photo here is of the passage from the jail to the former Old Bailey court house, which was also a graveyard of sorts. Those hanged were placed under the flagstones! Lime was enclosed in the coffins to rot the bodies quicker. And their only marker was an initial carved into the walls, which you can see.

This passageway disappeared when Newgate was finally taken down.

A slum district in London’s west end

Stand at Tottenham Court Road station and let your eyes drift from the Dominion Theatre past New Oxford Street and down Charing Cross Road. Now imagine that this whole stretch of London extending down to St Martin’s Lane and back to Drury Lane was one huge enormous slum. A warren of impenetrable alleyways, wooden houses, tens of people living in single rooms, filthy water, disease and crime. Welcome to the “rookery” (slum district) of St Giles throughout the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century. Viewed by Charles Dickens and used as inspiration for his work. And at the centre, the ancient church of St Giles, built on what was a medieval leper hospital.

The Victorians were keen clearers of slums – and there were two tried and trusted methods. Widen the roads and create large public squares then demolish what was left and replace with offices and swankier housing. And so Oxford Street was extended towards Holborn creating New Oxford Street. A pre-existing road was widened to give us Charing Cross Road leading down to Cambridge Circus. And then Shaftesbury Avenue cut off the then grubby Seven Dials (which even had a pillory at one stage).

As these two images show – the result was impressive.  One image of the rookery in the 1840s and the other of New Oxford Street in 1930. A hundred years made all the difference!

New Oxford Street in 1930
New Oxford Street in 1930
St Giles Rookery
St Giles Rookery in about 1846

Newgate Prison: George Cruikshank witnesses a hanging

This is one of a series of blog posts about the once notorious Newgate prison that stood on the site of today’s Old Bailey 

George Cruikshank was a caricaturist who drew the illustrations for the books of Charles Dickens. He was also vehemently opposed to the death penalty, following something he saw outside Newgate prison. Cruikshank lived in Dorset Street, Salisbury Square and one day had to visit a house near the Bank of England. As he passed Newgate, he gazed upwards to be met with the grisly sight of several bodies still hanging from the gallows – two of them women. It turned out they had been executed for forging one pound notes.IMG_0931

All of which gave Cruikshank an idea. As he wrote: “After witnessing this tragic scene I went home and in ten minutes designed and made a sketch of this”. He created his own bank note – not forged of course – but depicting the awful scene on what looked like a bank note. And of course this referenced the crime of the condemned. A perfect meeting of medium and message!

Hard to believe but this little act of protest created a sensation and Cruikshank’s house was mobbed by supporters. The Bank of England reacted by stopping the issuance of one pound notes while Sir Robert Peel moved new legislation to outlaw hanging for forgery.

Before the London Eye – there was the Earls Court Wheel !!

Behold the Earls Court wheel – forerunner to the London Eye. For just over ten years – 1895 to 1906 – this dominated the skyline at Earls Court in west London. It was a hit with visitors to exhibitions at the nearby large events venue. In one book of photos I have from the turn of the 20th century, there is a hilarious and very Victorian description of the ride I have to share with you:IMG_0880

This gigantic wheel, which forms such a prominent object in the landscape anywhere west of London is extensively patronised by the public during the Exhibitions at Earl’s Court and it matters very little if it is an Indian or Colonial or South African exhibition, the big wheel always has its crowd of patrons who like to experience the exhilarating effects of an ascent into the air minus the dangers attending a balloon and the probability of making an ascent rather higher than they had originally intended and the improbability of landing on the earth again in such a perfect condition. This slowly revolving wheel takes you up to a good height, from which you have a splendid view of bricks and mortar below you; and there is just that touch of danger which always gives piquancy to pleasure, that perhaps it may stop, and refuse to go on, and its patrons may have to be fed on buns and soda water by venturesome sailors until the machinery once more gets into working order and you slowly descend to your despairing relatives and expectant friends with tumultuous applause and you feel proudly conscious of something attempted and (thank goodness) something done.

Newgate Prison: Public hangings in Victorian London

This is the first of a series of blog posts about the notorious Newgate Prison that once stood on the site of the Old Bailey

You might assume that hanging people in public had died out in England after the 18th century but in fact, these gruesome events continued right up until 1868. The authors Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray both witnessed some of the last hangings – which still drew crowds of tens of thousands. In fact, Dickens seems to have been a serial attender at executions while also condemning them. He was present, for example, when murderer Marie Manning gasped her last outside the Surrey County Gaol in 1849 and outside Newgate prison when Francis Courvoisier dangled from the rope.IMG_0872

I have a battered old guide to the city – London As It Is Today – published for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and it tells visitors all about the delights of London’s prisons and even how they could be visited. It even lists some of the most recent executions!

Newgate prison was a huge jail standing where the Old Bailey is today. 19th century public hangings there included:

  • John Bellingham – executed in June, 1812 for shooting dead the prime minister Spencer Perceval. This was the only assassination of a prime minister in British history
  • Henry Fauntleroy – a banker hanged for forgery in November, 1824
  • Joseph Hunton – a well-known Quaker executed for forgery in December, 1828
  • George Widgett – the last person to be hanged for sheep stealing in May, 1831
  • John Bishop and Thomas Williams – for the murder of an Italian boy in December, 1831
  • Francis Benjamin Courvoisier – who killed Lord William Russell, his master, July 1840
  • Daniel Good – for the murder of Jane Jones at Putney in May, 1842
  • William Henry Hocker – for the murder of James De La Rue at Hampstead in April, 1845

My 1851 guide remarks on the imposing aspect of Newgate prison with its solid masses of granite walls.

In the open space in front of this prison, executions (now happily of rare occurrence), usually take place, with all their terrors; how many a young heart has here had its pulsation stopped! how many who once were the pride of their parents, and the joy and hope of their circle of friends, have here had their careers of profligacy and crime cut short, and in the pride of their strength, been “lighted away the way to dusty death”

In the prison chapel, there were galleries for male and female prisoners and at the centre – a chair for the following day’s condemned “shedder of blood”. Before the 19th century, his or her coffin would be placed at their feet during their last service just to rub the point home. In a small ante-room near the entrance to the prison was a collection of casts of the heads of well known executed individuals. Duplicates could also be seen in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s. IMG_0875

Newgate prison dated back to the 12th century but the last building dated from 1770 to 1783 and was designed by George Dance, who was the son of the architect of the Mansion House in the City of London (still standing). When it was decided to stop dragging condemned criminals from Newgate to Tyburn to be hanged (roughly where Marble Arch is today), they were simply led out to the front of Newgate and executed there – the first hanging being on the 7th November, 1783.

In another old guide to London in my possession, it states that on public execution days, local coffee shops and gin palaces would be bursting with people bargaining for seats to get the best view away from the crowds aside. You would hear the punters saying “excellent situation, comfortable room, splendid view”. The crush of people extended down Giltspur Street with criminals boasting loudly how their mates had been hanged, transported or imprisoned while they were still at large committing their foul deeds. City clerks often lingered too long and were late for work or even sacked.

When public hangings stopped in 1868 (Michael Barrett on the 26th May that year – an Irish Fenian), you would know that a life had been cut short within the prison walls by the flying of a black flag.

Should Victorian visitors wish to take a tour of the prison, they could apply to the Secretary of State for the Home Department (Home Office today), the Lord Mayor or the Sheriffs of London. Newgate Prison was finally torn down at the turn of the 20th century and the Central Criminal Court, or Old Bailey, was constructed between 1903 and 1906.

Shoreditch not named after a lady who died in a ditch

There will be many mythbuster moments on this blog and here comes one now!

Once upon a time there was a beautiful but delicate lady called Jane. She was the daughter of a Cheapside merchant and married a goldsmith called William Shore when she was just sixteen. He ran his business in Lombard Street and tried as best he could to provide for his new wife’s expensive tastes in dresses. Jane must have cut quite a dash because after seven years of marriage, she caught the eye of King Edward IV who made her his mistress in the year 1470 or thereabouts.

Shoreditch
How the Victorians imagined her dying

By all accounts, Jane was as witty as she was pretty. Years later, the saintly Thomas More wrote that Jane Shore was the king’s favourite mistress – and Edward IV had a rather ravenous sexual appetite. Thomas More wrote (spelling reflects the time):

The meriest was the Shore’s wife in whom the King therefore toke special pleasure

The Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton painted a slightly less flattering picture of a woman who was of “mean stature” and a little on the podgy side.

Her haire of a dark yellow. Her face round and full. Her eye grey…her body fat, white and smooth.

Shore’s husband was less than amused by this turn of events and abandoned his wife, leaving England and apparently dying abroad of grief. What he really should have done was wait for a change of king. And sure enough, Edward eventually passed away and was succeeded by wicked King Richard III.  Or much misunderstood Richard III if you prefer. This is the same king just buried with much pomp and circumstance in Leicester – after his bones were discovered under a car park recently.

Allegedly a picture of Jane Shore
Allegedly a picture of Jane Shore

Richard ordered Jane to do penance for her sins in St Paul’s churchyard. To Drayton, writing nearly a hundred years later, this was all about Richard making his late brother King Edward look like an awful character in order to obscure Richard’s dreadful crimes – like killing his young nephews in the Tower of London in order to seize the throne. So poor Jane was a political pawn in a very nasty medieval political game.

Jane hadn’t helped herself by falling for Lord Hastings after the death of King Edward, who King Richard hated so much he had him beheaded. Gradually, all Jane’s friends deserted her. And she sank into poverty by degrees – captured in a poem:

My gowns, beset with pearl and gold; Were turn’d to simple garments old; My chains and gems and golden rings, To filthy rags and loathsome things

And so – the tale went – Jane breathed her last as a beggar and fell into a ditch outside the city walls in an area that would immortalise her name: Shoreditch.  Only – there’s a few problems with that part of the story. According to Thomas More, she was seen very much alive and a sprightly old lady during the reign of Henry VIII, decades later. In fact, she may have lived till 1527 dying at the age of eighty. Also – Shoreditch (according to London historian John Stow) had existed as a name for that area for four hundred years before Jane Shore.

Myth – busted!

Royalist beats up journalists in Fleet Street

Sir Roger L’Estrange hated journalists.

He’d been a royalist all his life (born in 1616) and fought with King Charles I during the English Civil War. When the king lost and Cromwell became Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, L’Estrange was sentenced to death as a spy and conspirator and thrown into Newgate prison. Not enjoying his time behind bars in squalid conditions, L’Estrange escaped, fled to Holland, only to return with the Restoration of King Charles II. Now it was time for revenge against all those who had supported Cromwell. Especially journalists.

Fleet Street
Fleet Street in the 18th century – note the heads on display over Temple Bar

The centre of British journalism was Fleet Street with its many little alleyways. In the taverns, coffee houses and printing works of this great thoroughfare, writers expressed themselves a little too freely for L’Estrange’s royalist tastes. Many scribblers had been parliamentarians and against kingly autocracy. They wanted to write what they thought and that often meant mocking or criticising the monarch and his retinue.

In 1663, L’Estrange issued a pamphlet with the ominous title: Considerations and Proposals in order to Regulate the Press together with Divers Instances of Treasons and Seditious Pamphlets proving the Necessity thereof.” Ironically, for a man who hated writers – L’Estrange was a prolific writer himself, though always in defence of royal privilege. In this pamphlet, he argued for the harshest penalties for everybody involved in producing treasonous material. That not only meant journalists but “letter founders, the smiths and joiners that work upon the presses, with the stitchers, binders, stationers, hawkers, Mercury women, pedlars, ballad-singers, posts, carriers, hackney coachmen, boatmen and mariners” (sic). Nobody left out then!

Tyburn gallows
An execution at Tyburn

He was made official press censor. In his new role, L’Estrange abolished all newspapers except two – which he happened to own. The Intelligencer – “started for the satisfaction and information of the people” – and the News. But of course Fleet Street wasn’t just going to roll over and die in the face of L’Estrange. So he had to enforce the dire penalties he’d threatened. One victim of this royalist bigot was the owner of a printing press in Cloth Fair. His name was Twyne and he’d be made an example of to all journalists thinking life could go on as before.

With four burly men, L’Estrange kicked in Twyne’s door. They found writings that advocated the popular will – and you can imagine what L’Estrange thought about that! Twyne soon found himself before Lord Chief Justice Hyde at the Old Bailey who shouted: “Tie him up executioner!”  And added rather unpleasantly:

I speak it from my soul that we have the greatest happiness in the world in enjoying what we do under so gracious and good a king, and you Twyne, in the rancour of your heart, thus to abuse him deserve no mercy.

He was then sentenced to be hanged but cut down before he was dead, his entrails burnt “before your eyes” and his head and chopped up body to be “disposed of at the pleasure of the king’s majesty”. And so it was that L’Estrange got to have Twyne executed horribly at Tyburn and his body parts displayed at Ludgate, Aldersgate and elsewhere.

L’Estrange, sad to say, led a long life. Though he fell out with King William III and this old Tory lived long enough to see the Whig party, which he detested for its lack of devotion to the king, grow stronger. As a former journalist myself, I’d say that L’Estrange was an object lesson in why we should defend a free press with our dying breath. Though hopefully, it will never come to that!